Book of the Month Club Essay

Hi Soo’s Book-of-the Month Club Essay, Fall 2001–Growing Up In A Korean Kitchen

On a visit to South Korea a couple years ago, it slipped out that I had almost completed a Korean cookbook and memoir of my childhood. My family couldn’t believe it. Was this the same woman who was always complaining that she felt like a little puppy leashed to the kitchen door as a child, who was always reading in some hide-away instead of doing her kitchen chores? The same woman who wrote a novel protesting women’s place in society that scandalized conservative Korea in the 1960s, and who proclaimed that the kitchen was not a place for a modern woman? I could only answer that as I traveled and learned over the next three decades, I had begun to appreciate the culture of food, and realized that I had neglected my own culinary heritage and the two women who were its standard-bearers in our family. I felt it was my duty to write about it.

Now, when I entertain, thoughts of our grandmother and mother in our family kitchen are always with me. I remember how carefully they planned out and cooked the day’s meals for twenty-five or more family members and houseguests. I find myself imitating them in every way I can–selecting the freshest and most nutritious ingredients, following the proper cutting rules, coordinating colors, textures and flavors, cooking with care and finally serving in generous portions. (How I used to envy our guests!).

Our grandmother and mother were very different. Our grandmother, a tall, sophisticated and demanding woman, towered over our self-effacing, tenderhearted, petite mother. Whenever we complimented our mother’s cooking, she humbly credited her well-honed knife. I always think of her bruised and wrinkled hands holding a crude pounded carbon steel knife and skillfully dividing one slice of rice cake into equal pieces so that the twelve of us wouldn’t fight. Her hands are the most powerful tools I have ever known.

Our grandmother’s nickname was “tiger grandmother” within our clan and among our neighbors. Still, when I think of her, my most cherished memories are of her in the kitchen and her beautiful garden where she seemed to be happiest, in spite of her well-to-do upbringing. She was most at ease when she was cooking or making something with her hands. She took garnishing very seriously. Our grandmother’s final presentation had an artistic flair and refinement, but it was executed with seeming ease — without pretension. Her food arrangements were natural, like her garden, as if it had been left unattended. And although simplicity is one of the most admired Korean traits — and my grandmother’s own tastes were very austere — when it came to food decoration, she seemed to abandon her inhibitions. Her stern face would suddenly soften and she would become almost jovial, talking in a girlish voice of her own childhood and mother. Those were the few times when I caught a glimpse of the tenderness so deeply hidden inside her icy exterior. So I remember and miss her most often when I put the final touches on my food.

Now, as a mother and grandmother, I find that it is cooking that brings back the fondest memories of my childhood and seems to bring me ever closer to my grandmother and mother.